Tuesday, December 12, 2006; Page A27
Tehran's Holocaust Lesson
By Anne Applebaum
Yesterday the Iranian Foreign Ministry held an international
conference. Nothing unusual in that: Foreign ministries hold
conferences, mostly dull ones, all the time. But this one was
different. For one, "Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision"
dealt with history, not current politics. Instead of the usual
suspects -- deputy ministers and the like -- the invitees seem to
have included David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader; Georges
Theil, a Frenchman who has called the Holocaust "an enormous
lie"; and Fredrick Toeben, a German-born Australian whose
specialty is the denial of Nazi gas chambers.
The guest list was selective: No one with any academic eminence,
or indeed any scholarly credentials, was invited. One Palestinian
scholar, Khaled Kasab Mahameed, was asked to come but then barred
because he holds an Israeli passport -- and also perhaps because
he, unlike other guests, believes that the Holocaust really did
In response, Europe, the United States and Israel expressed
official outrage. The German government, to its credit, organized
a counter-conference. Still, many have held their distance,
refusing to be shocked or even especially interested. After all,
the Holocaust ended more than six decades ago. Since then,
victims of the Holocaust have written hundreds of books, and
scholarship on the Holocaust has run into billions of words.
There are films, photographs, documents, indeed whole archives
dedicated to the history of the Nazi regime. We all know what
happened. Surely Iran's denial cannot be serious.
Unfortunately, Iran is serious -- or at least Iran's president,
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is deadly serious: Holocaust denial is his
personal passion, not just a way of taunting Israel, and it's
based on his personal interpretation of history. Earlier this
year, in a distinctly eerie open letter to the German chancellor,
Angela Merkel, he lauded the great achievements of German culture
and lamented that "the propaganda machinery after World War II
has been so colossal that [it] has caused some people to believe
that they are the guilty party."
Such views hark back to the 1930s, when the then-shah of Iran was
an admirer of Hitler's notion of the "Aryan master race," to
which Persians were said to belong. Ahmadinejad himself counts as
a mentor an early Muslim revolutionary who was heavily influenced
by wartime Nazi propaganda. It shows.
Of course, Holocaust denial also has broader roots and many more
adherents in the Middle East, which may be part of the point,
too: Questioning the reality of the Holocaust has long been
another means of questioning the legitimacy of the state of
Israel, which was indeed created by the United Nations in
response to the Holocaust, and which has indeed incorporated
Holocaust history into its national identity. If the Shiite
Iranians are looking for friends, particularly among Sunni Arabs,
Holocaust denial isn't a bad way to find them.
But this week's event has some new elements too. This is, after
all, an international conference, with foreign participants,
formal themes (example: "How did the Zionists collaborate with
Hitler?") and a purpose that goes well beyond a mere denunciation
of Israel. Because some countries once under Nazi rule have
postwar laws prohibiting Holocaust denial, Iran has declared this
"an opportunity for thinkers who cannot express their views
freely in Europe about the Holocaust." If the West is going to
shelter Iranian dissidents, then Iran will shelter David Duke. If
the West is going to pretend to support freedom of speech, then
so will Iran.
Heckled for the first time in many months by demonstrators at a
rally yesterday, Ahmadinejad responded by calling the hecklers
paid American agents: "Today the worst type of dictatorship in
the world is the American dictatorship, which has been clothed in
human rights." The American dictatorship, clothed in human rights
and spouting falsified history: It's the kind of argument you can
hear quite often nowadays, in Iran as well as in Russia and
Venezuela, not to mention the United States.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this particular
brand of historical revisionism is no joke, and we shouldn't be
tempted to treat it that way. Yes, we think we know this story
already; we think we've institutionalized this memory; we think
this particular European horror has been put to rest, and it is
time to move on. I've sometimes thought that myself: There is so
much other history to learn, after all. The 20th century was not
lacking in tragedy.
And yet -- the near-destruction of the European Jews, in a very
brief span of time, by a sophisticated European nation using the
best technology available was, it seems, an event that requires
constant reexplanation, not least because it really did shape
subsequent European and world history in untold ways. For that
reason alone it seems the archives, the photographs and the
endless rebuttals will go on being necessary, long beyond the
lifetime of the last survivor.
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